Posts Tagged ‘language’


May 15, 2010

Good grief, it’s been three and a half months since I’ve written anything here.

I’ve been distracted.  As of mid-February, I’ve returned to the realm of full-time employment.  Yay for positive cash flow!  But now that I’ve settled into work, I want to show my poor, neglected blog some love.

In my last post, I said I would write more about kanji and hiragana, but I have no idea what I had intended to discuss.  That’s what I get for saying “Next time, I’ll write about X.”  Foolish.  My dispatches would be less random as far as getting written if I went back to making them more random in terms of content.  In that vein, this post has nothing to do with the Japanese writing system, although it is language-related.

Recently, I was poking around YouTube, looking for decent enka music, which is in much shorter supply than bad enka.  In doing so, I came across Aiko Moriyama (森山愛子, Moriyama Aiko), whose work falls into both categories at once.  Which is to say she’s a talented singer, but her songs tend toward melodramatic fluff.  But the most notable thing about her is the enormous contrast between her speaking voice and her singing voice.

In conversation, Ms. Moriyama affects a ridiculously cutesy voice.  It’s a good example of the phenomenon in modern Japanese society called burikko (ぶりっ子), in which women adopt artificially cute voices and behavior in an attempt to be appealing.  Basically, in the same way that American society tells women that they need to be sexy, Japan prizes cuteness.  The voices and mannerisms encouraged by the pressure to be cute range from subtle to grating.  Moriyama’s speaking voice falls in the latter camp, but at least her behavior isn’t that bad.

Here’s the YouTube video in question.

I wonder if she talks like that just to make it a shock when she starts singing.

It’s beside the point, but here’s an attempt at translating the conversation and the song.  The song is called Tokyo Banka (東京挽歌), meaning “Tokyo Elegy.”

Host:    Ms. Yuki Nishino, thank you very much.  Now to our next guest.  Ms. Aiko Moriyama.  Welcome.

Aiko:    I’m glad to be here.

Host:    Is this by any chance made from a kimono’s sash?  It is, isn’t it?

Aiko:    That’s right.  This is an obi turned into a dress.

Host:    Isn’t that clever.

Aiko:    Isn’t it?

Host:    Ms. Aiko Moriyama, you grew up in the town of Utsunomiya, is that right?  Do you have any memories of summer in Utsunomiya from when you lived there?

Aiko:    Well, Utsunomiya is surrounded by nature, so when summer vacation came, I’d go to the forest with my older brother who’s closest to my age, and we’d catch beetles.  Or also, when we stayed at my grandmother’s house, we’d go to a river near by and catch crayfish. That sort of thing.

Host:    Isn’t that nice!  That’s the sort of summer you’d dream of.  Now then, on to your new song.

Aiko:    Yes.

Host:    The title is “Tokyo Banka.”  What sort of song is it?

Aiko:    This song depicts someone who has left her hometown and moved to the capital to follow her dreams.  And of course I also moved to Tokyo at age 18, right after graduating from high school, and worked to become a singer, although I did part-time jobs and took voice lessons first, but anyway it’s a song where I can superimpose myself over the character.

Host:    I see.  Well without further ado, we’ll have you sing it for us.  This is Aiko Moriyama with “Tokyo Banka.”  If you please.

Should I visit home, before the festival?
It’s not far, but it feels so distant
Right now even my grandfather
wouldn’t let me rub his shoulders

Ha~ e~ the madder red sky
Wiping away a tear
Tokyo Elegy

White moonflowers, bottle gourd flowers
They would be blooming now and shaking in the rain
To follow my dream, I walk on alone

Determination is tomorrow’s milepost
Ha~ e~ it’s so lonely
But damned if I’ll give up
Tokyo Elegy

Notes:  I think the line “Right now even my grandfather wouldn’t let me rub his shoulders” implies that she left home against her family’s wishes and expects that she’d get a cold welcome if she visited them.  I’m not sure how to interpret “determination is tomorrow’s milepost,” but that’s a direct translation.  As for the conversation, the host and Aiko don’t actually say “Welcome” and “I’m glad to be here.”  They both use a set phrase (yoroshiku onegaishimasu) that means something like “Please treat [me/it/them] well.”  It’s used when you meet someone for the first time, when you’re working with someone, or when you’re placing someone or something in another person’s care.


December 17, 2009

Japan had no written language until regular contact with China began in the 6th century.  Over the next several hundred years, Japan adopted many aspects of Chinese culture, and one of these aspects was writing.  At first, though, all of this writing was actually done in Chinese, not Japanese.  Why?  Because Chinese isn’t written with an alphabet.

Chinese is written using glyphs known as hanzi, meaning “Han characters” – “Han” being the name of China’s dominant ethnic group.  In Japanese, this word is pronounced kanji.

Kanji began many thousands of years ago as pictograms.  So the word “bird,” for example, was a picture of a bird.  But what if you want to write “hawk,” or “duck,” or “heron”?  And then what about different varieties of hawk, duck, and heron?  Trying to have a different pictogram for every bird quickly becomes ridiculous.  And what about abstract ideas?  Pictograms are too cumbersome, and so most kanji were instead created by combining other kanji.

One type of combination deals purely with meaning.  For example, 明, a character that means “bright,” is composed of 日 and 月, the characters for “sun” and “moon.”  This category is small, though.

The majority of kanji were created such that one part indicates pronunciation and another indicates meaning.  Take 松, the character for “pine tree.”  The left half comes from 木, meaning “tree,” and the right half is 公, which means “public.”  A pine, therefore, is a tree whose name is pronounced like the word for “public” – in ancient Chinese, that is.

However, it’s generally not the case that kanji equal words.  Rather, most kanji correspond to morphemes, the units of meaning that make up words.  For example, the English word “geology” is composed of two morphemes, geo-, meaning “Earth,” and -logy, meaning “study.”  So if we used kanji to write English, that would be a two-character word.  (As it happens, “geology” is written with three kanji – 地質学 – which mean “ground-qualities-study.”)

Oh, and when I say that 松 was made by combining 木 and 公, note that the creation process happened millennia ago; you don’t make up new characters every time you write a sentence.  Sometimes artists and authors will invent new kanji, but it’s not something that is normally done.

So.  Each kanji character corresponds to a morpheme (usually), and each kanji is either a pictogram – stylized beyond recognition – or a composite of pictograms, most often consisting of a part that hints at meaning and a part related to pronunciation.  It’s complicated, but not arbitrary.  But what happens if you want to use kanji to write a different language?

Well for one, the clues to pronunciation are immediately rendered useless.  “Pine” and “public” may be pronounced the same in Chinese, but they sure aren’t the same in English.  And what do you do if one language has a morpheme that the other doesn’t?  And how do you write names?  “Kevin” means “kind and gentle,” but if you decide to use those characters to write “Kevin,” then you’re assigning them two separate pronunciations.  And in that case, how does anyone know that they’re reading the name and not the sentence fragment?

All of these problems meant that when Chinese writing was introduced to Japan, it could only be used for writing Chinese.  This was better than having no writing, but understandably, people wanted to find a way to write in their native Japanese.  Eventually they did, although it took centuries and left the Japanese language permanently changed in the process.

But I’ll talk about that another time.

The Japanese Language

November 7, 2009

I use at least a few Japanese words in nearly every post I write, so while I’m on my “Guide to Japan” kick, it would make sense to write about the language itself.  I’ll give it a go.

In this post, I’ll cover phonology.


Note that when I say “vowels,” I’m talking about sounds, not letters.  English has five vowels in its alphabet, but it uses many more actual vowel sounds.

Japanese has only five vowel sounds: a like in father, i like in see, u like in you, e like in say, and o like in no.  However, unlike the English vowels in “say” and “no,” none of the Japanese vowels are diphthongs.

Furthermore, Japanese vowels are all short.  What does that mean?  Consider long and short vowels in English.  The vowel in “met” is short and the vowel in “mate” is long.  They’re also simply different vowels, but the point is, if you try saying the two words, you can hear the difference in length.  So the Japanese e is pronounced with the same sound as mate (minus the diphthong part), but with the short length of met.


Consonants are nearly the same as in English (and again, I’m talking about sounds, not letters).  The most notable exception is that Japanese has neither r nor l, but instead features a sound that’s a bit like a cross between r, l, and the American English flap (the sound Americans substitute for t and d in words like “water” and “buddy”). Another difference is that there is no true f in Japanese.  What about words like Fuji?  Well when h is followed by u, the h changes to a sound made by pushing air through pursed lips, as if blowing out a candle, and the effect is similar to f.

Those are the big differences.  There are smaller ones, but I’ll skip them for the sake of brevity.

As far as combining sounds, a consonant must be followed by a vowel.  This can make for some rather cumbersome English loanwords.  “Strike,” for example, becomes sutoraiku.  The exceptions to this rule are that n can appear without a vowel, that <consonant+y+vowel> is allowed, and that some consonants can be “long,” which I’ll explain later.


English has stress patterns that are part of each word’s pronunciation.  Take the two words written “record.”  With the noun, the first syllable is stressed, and with the verb, it’s the second syllable.

Japanese doesn’t have stress accenting; each syllable receives the same emphasis.  English speakers trying to pronounce Japanese tend to have difficulty with this.  My advice is, if you can’t manage equal-stress syllables, then the next best thing is to accent the first syllable.  And whatever you do, don’t accent the second to last syllable.  So for example, pronouncing the popular manga and anime series Naruto as /na ru to/ sounds really goofy, but /na ru to/ is fine.  Or for a less nerdy example, Kenji Johjima, a catcher for the Seattle Mariners baseball team (2006-2009), initially had his name mangled by announcers as /jo ji ma/, but eventually this was corrected to /jo ji ma/.


Japanese doesn’t have stress accents, but it does have pitch accents, which are patterns of high and low pitch. These are not the same thing as the tone system used in Chinese.  The Wikipedia page has an excellent audio example.  Unfortunately for people learning Japanese as a second language, pitch accents vary by regional dialect and aren’t displayed in most dictionaries.  When I studied Japanese at the University of Washington, the instructors didn’t even attempt to teach pitch accents.


Japanese words are divided into sub-syllable segments called moras.  A consonant-vowel pair is one mora, a vowel with no consonant is a mora, and n with no vowel is a mora.  So for example, sushi has two moras: su and shi.  Akai (“red”) has three: a.ka.i.  Nenjū (“year-round”) has four moras: ne.n.ju.u.

An English speaker asked to clap the beats in a word will match the beats to syllables, but in Japanese, each mora gets a beat.  And unlike the English syllable-beats, Japanese mora-beats are all the same length.

Moras are important in Japanese metered poetry.  In the original Japanese, the 5-7-5 pattern of a haiku poem is counted by mora, not syllable.

Doubled Sounds

I said that the word nenjū has four moras.  Why is it four and not three?  The reason is that the line over the u indicates a “long” vowel.  An alternate way to write the word would be nenjuu.

Properly speaking, all Japanese vowels are short, but the same vowel can come twice in a row.  The effect of such doubling is that the vowel is pronounced for two beats instead of one.  And in fact there are words where the same vowel appears for three moras in a row, as with yūutsu/yuuutsu (“melancholy”).

Consonants can also be doubled, though not tripled.  With sounds that can be pronounced continuously, such as s, sh, and n, the consonant is simply lengthened.  For an idea of what this sounds like, try saying “this seat” (at a normal pace, not slowly).  The s in “this” runs into the s in “seat,” creating one long s.  The long s in the Japanese word kissaten (“cafe”) sounds just like this.

Consonants produced by stopping and releasing air, such as p, t, and k, are doubled by holding the stop for a beat.  You can make a doubled k in English by quickly saying “back kick.”

In terms of moras, a word with doubled consonants breaks down like this:

Finally, as for usage, a doubled consonant never begins a word, and – with n being the exception once again – voiced consonants can’t be doubled.  (Voiced consonants are those in which the vocal cords vibrate.  Touch your vocal cords and say “ssssssss” and then “zzzzzzzzzzz.”  Z is voiced and s is not.  Other voiced/voiceless pairs include b/p, d/t, and g/k.)

And there you have it.  Not at all comprehensive, but I wanted to keep the information density at a manageable level.